THREE

 

number-3

 

I

 

My mother always used to say that bad things happen in three’s.

A few weeks ago Victor broke a pint glass glasswhile taking it out of the dishwasher. I got mad because I love our pint glasses. I drink everything out of them: water, tea, even my milky coffee. A day later I dropped a glass while rinsing it and it shattered inside the sink—thank goodness. For the remainder of the day I was on guard, waiting for the third shoe—um, glass—to drop. That night, when I took a sip from my gin on the rocks, I felt a tug at my lower lip. Sure enough, the crystal tumbler was mysteriously chipped.

Our basement flooded the following week. basementIt’d rained so much the ground around our house couldn’t contain the water and it seeped in through the walls. We shop-vacuumed up the deluge and I spent hours replacing soaked-through towel after soaked-through towel until the water, at last, ceased flowing. The very next day the dehumidifier leaked. It was maybe a puddle’s worth of captured humidity: not enough for me to think of it as #2 or to fear there might be a #3. Lo and behold: the following day, while Victor was cleaning out the washing machine, the drip thing (I believe that’s the technical term for that particular part) that needed to be emptied got clogged and when he pulled on it, enough water gushed out that the stack of clean towels were employed yet again.

In the grand scheme of life, three lost glasses and three watery annoyances didn’t warrant any dramatic concern. Nor did it over-stimulate my superstitious leanings.

I did my best not dwell on the fact that TWO sets of THREE unfortunate events had just occurred. I refused to believe that a third set would soon follow.

But, as we all know, mothers are always correct.

II

 

As I do most mornings, I read the local obituaries. My therapist finds this routine curious, if not a little ghastly. I am of the age where mortality is not so far-fetched a concept as it was when I was a carefree twenty-something or 30-something or even a 40-something woman who still saw more ahead than behind. No matter how much flax seed I sprinkle on my wild blueberries or how many negative mammograms I receive, I know I’m past my life’s half-way mark. I read the obits partly because I feel lucky to be alive when others don’t get to be. I like to see people living long lives. I silently cheer when I read about folks who’ve lived to their 90s. I fret when I see someone my own age dead.

What most rattles me, though, is when I come upon a familiar face.

As I scrolled the list of recently-deceased on Monday, November 4th, I saw someone I knew. His name was Sead Korajkic and he’d died the night before. He was 66.

Sead

I didn’t really know Sead, but I knew him enough to feel okay about sharing a memory in the guestbook:

During the many years I’ve been shopping at Market 32 (nee Price Chopper) I always begin in the produce section where the first thing I do is look around for Sead. Before picking out a bunch of green bananas or squeezing the avocados, I peer over toward the onions in hopes that I might find him. And then I see him and he sees me. His smile grows. His eyes light up and he waves, yelling, “Hello! Hello!” as if I were his best friend in the world, and not simply some random customer who shops for radishes once a week. I walk over. Sometimes we hug. I ask him how he is. He says, “Is good. All is good, and you?” I say, “I am fine, thank you,” and move on toward the ginger, feeling lighter, happier, a bit more connected to the ground on which I walk. I will miss these moments of grace. Hvala vam puno, Sead.

I would have liked to have attended his funeral on Tuesday at the Islamic Society of VT Mosque, but I already had plans to fly down to Florida at 5:30 that morning to visit my mother.

After I got off the plane and rented a car I drove straight to her memory care facility. She greeted me with a “I-sort-of-know-who-you-are” smile and a half-kiss before she went back to using her fingers to dig pieces of canned pineapple out of a plastic cup. I threw down my bag and went off to make my usual rounds of saying hi to Sandra the nurse who phones me whenever Mom falls or walks into a wheelchair and slashes her shin; the too few caretakers who take good care of my mother; and the wives and husbands and children of the other residents with whom I keep in touch through texts and emails.

In particular, I looked around for Gail, whose husband Larry lived a few doors down from my mother. Gail and Larry were from NYC. Larry was a high school guidance counselor and Gail was a teacher. They got married in 1970 and were, as far as I could tell, fiercely devoted to one another. When Larry developed dementia, Gail took care of him at home for as long as humanly possible before moving him into a facility, but she was there Every. Single. Day. She sometimes sent me photographs of my mother. She was my woman on the ground, so to speak, keeping me informed about the goings-on around the locked neighborhood.anotherfaillarry

I wandered over to Larry’s room, and saw that, oddly enough, the door was closed. I looked around for the couple, but couldn’t find them. Then I ran into Nidia, the Venezuelan woman who was a personal aide for another resident.

“Hi, Nidia. Where’s Larry?” I asked.

“You don’t know?”

“Know what?”

“He died last night.”

“What? How? Why?”

“He fell. They gave him morphine and then, I don’t know; he died.” She shrugged like a person used to being around humans with a hand on the exit door.

I immediately IM’d Gail to tell her how very sorry I was about Larry’s passing, and the moment after I hit SEND, an eerie sensation shot through my spine.

That was two older men in a row.

And when I heard that paranoid voice in my head—the one that stops me from snatching pennies off the ground if they’re tails-up—whisper, “Another man will die very soon,” I pushed against it.

But…I guess I didn’t push hard enough because that night Victor called me to tell me his father, Charlie, had fallen and was in the hospital. His big beautiful brain was bleeding.

Like many Jewish kids born to immigrant parents in late 20s New York City, my father-in-law grew up dirt poor. His father, an illiterate Polish immigrant who fled as a child to America, was a bread baker. Charlie had no intention of baking in his father’s footsteps. He was determined to go to college. He wanted to have money.

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He succeeded.

allfourkidsBut, unlike many previously-impoverished kids who turned stingy, selfish and self-centered after growing up and making it big, Charlie never forgot what it was like to go without. He was generous to a fault. He was a constant and loving presence in the lives of his four children.

He and my mother-in-law, Jane, had a long and enviably happy marriage.couple It didn’t matter if they were camping alongside a mountain lake or flying off to France to see their friends, Jane and Charlie adventured together with indefatigable passion. 

Charlie possessed an extraordinary sense of humor, honed in the Borscht belt where he waited tables; and was also an exceedingly captivating raconteur, especially after downing a few glasses of a fine Burgundy. Even Loy, who often had to sit through hours-long meals with her grandparents, laughed along as Charlie rattled off his huge repertoire of jokes, perhaps because she knew a fantastic dessert would soon be served? Although Charlie disavowed bread baking, he couldn’t suppress his floury fate: after retiring, he spent years apprenticing at French restaurants, eventually becoming a master pastry chef. The man knew how to spin flour, sugar, and butter into a thing of beauty and deliciousness.

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Loy and Charlie baking

Victor flew down on Thursday morning while Charlie was being transferred from his bed in the hospital to his bed on the Upper West Side. He texted me later that day:

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At 5:00 the next morning I awoke, reached for my phone, and saw:

text2

III

Before she got dementia my brothers and I often joked that our mother was part witch because even after we no longer lived with her, she always knew when one of us was sick or in trouble.

I actually believe my mother’s sixth sense stems from the gypsies scattered around her Hungarian bloodline. Whenever she dropped a spoon on the floor she’d say, “The next person who walks through the door will be a woman.” (A fork meant a man was soon to visit; a knife foretold a couple.) If she caught one of us scratching our palms she’d declare, “Oh, you’re about to get some money!” She was spot-on about 89% of the time.

I wish I could tell my mother that her old wive’s tale is, in fact, true: bad things do happen in three’s. She used to love listening to my stories and I know she would have enjoyed hearing about my recent run-ins with chipped glasses and sodden towels. 

She wouldn’t have liked hearing about the deaths, though. She adored Charlie and, had her brain still worked, she would have immediately called Jane to offer her condolences. And, after hanging up the phone she probably would have looked over at me with a satisfied smirk and said, “See? I told you so.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

EXPECTATIONS

expectation

Yesterday was a weird day all around. A day of odd coincidences, thwarted expectations, feelings of unsettledness, tossed about with moments of sweetness and gratitude.

How so, you ask? Well…

1) I’d woken up expecting to find the time and inspiration to write an essay about a very cool bus driver named Mike I met last year, but instead I

–stared out the window at the brilliantly colored leaves;
–caught up on old emails, but not to the point of saturation or satisfaction;
–berated myself for having such lousy time-management skills;
–read too many articles about the CA wildfires and power outages, feeling fearful for all my friends as well as relieved that we weren’t living there anymore;

and then I remembered that I am on a deadline to re-listen to and edit the final version of the audio version of RASH and so I made tea, donned my headphones, and went to town. Around 1:30, after becoming virtually comatose from too-large a lunch of boxed tomato soup to which I added cherry tomatoes and chunks of feta; served alongside a platter of crudities, and a poached egg (the latter two slathered with a fatty mixture of crunchy chili pepper sauce and mayo), I lay down on my bed to meditate/nap. When I woke up 20 minutes later, feeling both refreshed and slightly enlightened, I realized I had to GET OUT OF THE HOUSE

2) so I packed up my stuff and headed to Kestrel, a coffee house/groovyworkspace by the waterfront. I knew Loy had rowing practice after school and I figured I’d work a little, then bring her a hot drink before she headed out onto the windswept lake. When I walked in, I was greeted by a friendly 20-something named Ethan. I told him that I’d stopped coming here because I’d found the previous owners and their hired help cold and unwelcoming. He said he knew what I was talking about and hoped, now that there were new owners and different employees, I’d find the place more inviting. I smiled and, wanting to reinforce my past dissatisfaction, told him about the time I was in line and this woman walked in with a funny-looking/adorable dog and while she was talking to her friend I took the dog’s picture, whereupon the barista, who witnessed my action, went crazy, yelling, “How dare you take a picture of someone’s dog without their permission! That’s so rude!” I’d looked at the owner, who merely shrugged, unconcerned. I left the café and vowed never to return.

When I finished my tale, I expected Ethan to say something like, “Yeah, that was totally uncalled for. I can totally understand why you never came back,” but instead he looked around uncomfortably and muttered, “Well, it was kind of…you know…a little intrusive…” whereupon I interrupted this second berating, thanked him for the latte and opened my laptop.  Ten minutes later Loy texted me that she was on her way to practice and could I please bring her a hot chocolate. I SO wanted to listen to another 30 minutes of audio and sip my coffee, but because I am a guilt-ridden mother who is painfully aware that these are our final few months together before she goes off to college, I poured my drink in a to-go cup, got her a cocoa and headed to the waterfront where I admired the beautiful scenery until

3) the team pulled into the parking lot. I walked over to Ben, their coach. I felt slightly uncomfortable and wondered how he was feeling toward Loy because of something she did this week. Long story short: the Burlington High School girls’ soccer team created #equalpay t-shirts and wore them under their team shirts during a game last week, and when they scored a goal, they removed their team shirts, causing them to get yellow-carded (which is a penalty). Their act went viral. Billie Jean King, Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton (among many other VIPs) tweeted their support. “Good Morning America”  and “CNN” (among many other TV stations) interviewed the team. The New York Post and The Guardian (among many other media outlets) wrote about it. This past Tuesday night Loy texted Coach Ben and asked if he’d mind canceling rowing practice on Wednesday so the team could go watch the soccer game in a show of support. While she was texting him I worried that she might be stirring up trouble. After all, this showed her not supporting her own team, which very much needed to practice.

I sidled up to Ben and before I could utter more than “hi,” he said, “You know what Loy did was amazing. This team is so full of masculine energy [4 girls out of 40], and getting everyone to go and cheer on the girls was such a positive thing.” He even posted about it:

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Twice now what I expected to happen did not. Twice, people reacted differently than I expected them to. SONY DSCAnd just when I thought nothing more weird was going to happen

4) I went to City Market to buy some provisions for dinner and I ran into a neighbor who’ve I spoken to maybe 3 times in the five years we’ve lived on our street. Expecting our convo to be insubstantial but necessary, if only for the sake of politeness, I asked the usual banal questions about his life and family to which he responded with typically generic answers. And just when I thought we were caught up, he suddenly shared that his sister was coming to visit and that she has lymphoma. He seemed so worried that I—forever needing to comfort and empathize and enable—said, “Oh, that’s curable,” to which he replied, “It is?”

I had no idea if it was but I’d dug myself a medical hole and knew I had to offer some evidence to support my empty assertion, so before I could stop myself I said, “Yeah, ‘I Feel Bad About My Neck’.”

He looked stumped.

“That writer—damn; I can’t remember her name. She’s a playwright and she had lymphoma and she lived with it for 10 years.” Once again, I had no idea if this was true. Plus, I was incorrect: she wasn’t a playwright, but a screenplay writer and essayist, but by now the hole was too deep to crawl out from.

“Ten years, huh?” Then he narrowed his eyes and asked, “Why do you feel bad about your neck?”

“What?” I laughed. “No; that was the title of the book she wrote. Have you read it? It was really funny.”

“No, but are you talking about Nora Ephron?”nora

Stunned, I almost fell to the floor. “But you just said…how did you come up with that name?”

He looked at the floor. “I honestly have no idea. It just popped into my head.”

We bid adieu to one another and I went back to shopping. I couldn’t stop thinking about how weird it was he guessed her name and then I fixated on Ephron’s book and the fact that I sort of did feel bad about my own neck (as well as countless other parts of me), which then segued into that most unwelcome train of thought that oft-times speeds into my brain’s station. By that I mean that while I perused the many bundles of kale, I began questioning my own talent and wondering if perhaps I should change professions. A second after sliding some green lacinato into a yellow compostable bag I looked up and saw a guy wearing this shirt. I was so stunned by the universe’s answer that I asked if I could snap a picture, expecting him to demur or even to give me a dirty look. But he didn’t. He puffed out his chest and said, “Go for it.”

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5) and, finally: late last night I received a text from my friend Jamie, asking how it was going to which I replied:

Not great. Drank gin while watching episode 1 of Looking For Alaska by myself and ate a bag of chips, a cup of frozen grapes, 4 pieces of chocolate covered tangerines and 1/2 cup of lupini beans and felt well… felt like it’s just sort of gone; the past, I mean. I WAS that character: skinny, smart, sassy, sexy, a bit dark. All the boys (and most girls) hovered near, wanting some part of my magic, my mystery. I was, in case you weren’t aware, Miss Weird but super popular in all 3 of my high schools. This is way TMI and I’ll perhaps delete rather than send, but it’s funny but in the bath just now I was thinking about WHO amongst the humans I know, gets me/it. Like understands the angst and emptiness and wonder and Zen-like wooliness, and you sprang to mind. I’m not sure, given God’s hold on you, you have that same cynical itch and depth of inquiry, but my gut, my sense, is that you do—that you sometimes in the dark of night feel the stark emptiness. But you don’t let it take you, swallow you the way it does me at times. Instead you find the light, whether it be in the eyes of one of your children or in your imagination. But I know you know how to grasp hold of it. I’m meditating a lot, writing my new book, and I start volunteering next week at the food shelf. I’m sort of wading; waiting for change—something that fits me like that pair of jeans that feel like a second skin, comfort, ease. I’d apologize for the stream of crazy consciousness but you know, I sort of feel as if I never need to apologize to you because our connection/love for one another precludes such silliness.

I expected Jamie to write back and offer me some sort of compassion or to tell me I’m full of shit and to get over myself because I’m a great writer and maybe I should start looking at all that I should be grateful for (because, well, there is a lot of that), and, even though my expectations weren’t met yet again, what she said was exactly what I needed to hear:

You never need to apologize to me. I KNEW there was a reason I couldn’t stop thinking about you. I can’t explain it, but we are linked. As for the girl you “used to be” whom everybody loved—well everybody loving you is not a recipe for satisfaction. It’s not REAL. It’s a feeling and in my own life, as my writing takes flight or not, I’m trying to hold on to what’s real—the people who will love me no matter what I do or say. I love you. You matter.

 

 

 

Another Burst of Light

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Around a year ago I wrote an essay about my friend Jamie Sumner. It was more or less a book review disguised as a love letter. Or perhaps it was a love letter disguised as a book review?

Either way, that particular blogpost allowed me to:

1) satisfy my sometimes insatiable need to overshare personal stories;
2) praise and promote Jamie’s splendiferous memoir about her skirmish with infertility;
3) express my gratitude for all the support Jamie offers up while I cope with my mother’s slow but steady demise from dementia.

She shoots arrows of light into the sky for me, she does. Yup. I email Jamie to tell her I’m flying down to Florida and what does she write in return? She tells me not to worry; she’ll be “shooting prayers into the sky like arrows.”

I’ve felt those arrows. Those prayers. That light of hers pushing away the darkness. Jamie’s presence in my life has been nothing short of miraculous.

But here’s the thing: Jamie isn’t just an arrow-shooting friend. She’s also the mother of three beautiful children, one of whom is differently-abled. (Her firstborn, Charlie, has Beckwith-Wiedemann Syndrome and cerebral palsy).

Charlie is the inspiration for Jamie’s new book–the book I expect to be one of the most talked-about, gushed over, and positively reviewed Middle-Grade novels on the planet. Friendsx, I give you:

FINAL-front-cover-Roll-with-It

So, okay, maybe this here blogpost is yet another love letter disguised as a book promo or perhaps it’s a book promo disguised as a love letter? Either way, it’s allowing me to:

1) congratulate Jamie on her BOOK RELEASE DAY! release-day(We authors take this very seriously. I mean, hello? Your shiny new book is born today! It’s like your birthday, only it has fewer candles and more words.);
2) tell everyone I know to go out and buy this book. Buy it now. Today. Buy it before midnight and, if you prove to me you did, I will shoot a few beams of light in your general direction.

Congratulations, Firefly. May this extraordinary story of yours brighten the hearts and spark the minds of a million readers.

Lillian’s Light

lillian

Photo credit: Lisa Kusel 

Memories, like Jell-O, shake,
fall off the Spanish chandelier
all she left me, my father’s mother,
once she died, it hangs there from the ceiling
in our dining room, ceramic flowers
pink and blue and yellow like a child’s toy
giving light with open arms

spraying light and then
she is stooped under it
gnarled painful back, humped
spreading tuna salad
on rye toast
heaping canned fruit bits, cherries
redder than an oil painting,
squares of pineapple so perfect
a geometry teacher would marry them
on my plate and I wipe

treacly juice
from my small mouth
pounce
from the table
catch
my elfin reflection
in that lucid bough hanging
over her table alive with possibilities
I could not perceive

before I escaped to
my Florida friends

Marco Polo
Marco
Polo

before I could scurry from
dry cold old-smelling air into
a humid embrace like a mink stole
saddling sunburned shoulders

she kisses my freckled cheeks, in her hands
like a vise tightening waiting sides
leaving me lipstick smudged,
plastic smelling Hollywood Red, Uptown Red, Marilyn Red
Radiant Red, Royal Red, Ravishing Red, Really Red, Truly Red,
Russian Red, West End Red, Silent Red,
Burnt Red, Flame Red, Hot Red,
Red Licorice, Red Ribbon, Red Devil, Red Fox,
No Question Red, Deep Cut Red, Riot Red
Fatal Red, Midnight Red, Velvet Red, Drop Dead Red
Classic Red rubbed off with thumb and spit. Cleaning

a hanging light is treacherous.
So many reflections lie beneath the dust.
In the breeze they make no sound.

What’s Going On, Lisa?

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Thanks for asking. It’s been a while, so I figured, what, with this 3-day weekend upon us, I may as well catch you up.

I spent three weeks in northern California this summer and it was an altogether fabulous holiday. Among my many adventures, I

  • visited my girlfriend Lela, the doctor who delivered Loy. She opened a new ob/gyn practice in Santa Rosa with an attached spa that offers skin-altering facials, one of which Lela treated me to. After the machine sucked out the toxins and the aesthetician rubbed some magic lotion on my skin, I positively glowed. For a few days, anyway, I looked a decade younger.
  • ran into my old boyfriend, Doug, of Modern Love, Rejected fame. (Still happily married, he did not take notice of my shiny countenance.)
  • hiked 8 miles (and 1545 feet of elevation gain) up a mountain dyingafter both mistakenly taking too much of my ADHD meds, and not bringing along enough water in blistering heat. I almost died.
  • reconnected with friends from our former lives in Nevada City which made me consider moving back there again.
  • enjoyed two blissful weeks in Lake Tahoe, writing, cooking, hiking, swimming, reading, and hanging with my BFF Lori. I sort of never wanted to leave.IMG_0133

But leave I did and once back in Vermont, I got back to work. Yeah, writers do more than just stare off into space, conjuring up fantastical plots and wondering what to name their fictional characters’ dogs (I did actually spend a lot of time doing that). Among other things I

  • listened to 8.5 hours of the first run-through of the audio version of RASH, stopping every 22 seconds to note mistakes made by the narrator, most of which were Bahasa and Balinese mispronunciations. Granted; I should have recorded it myself, but Sharon Larson, the producer I chose, lives in Idaho and it was easier to let someone else take it on. Sharon is working on the final edits and the audiobook should be available in the next month or so.
  • finished the final edits on my domestic suspense novel Love Lies Here. I am now composing the ever-important query. I never had to write a query before: my previous agents came to me through introductions. I follow this guy, Nathan Bransford, an ex-agent turned writing blogger. He offers in-depth, accessible advice to newbie writers, as well as to old hands like me who still need some help. As to query writing, Nathan says:
Writing a query is such a tricky balance. One the one hand, you have to condense an entire novel into a few dozen words. On the other hand, you want your query to reflect the uniqueness of your book and stand out from the pack. You need to be general, but you also need to include detail. You need to be clear, but you need to be original. You need to give flavor, but you can’t get bogged down. How in the world do you do all this at once?

Exactly.

Now then. Besides the query-writing I

  • flew to Florida to check on my mother. I’d like to be the bearer of good news where she is concerned, but, unfortunately, this is not to be. (Have I mentioned that the heat of Florida in August is not that different than the heat in Bali anytime?)
  • fretted over the fact that my daughter, Loy, just started her senior year of high school. I miss her even though she’s still here and now my head and heart are swirling with a kaleidoscope of
    1. sadness
    2. pride
    3. wonder
    4. questions about my own mortality
    5. time
    6. success: what does it even mean?
    7. #metoo
    8. motherhood
  • made reservations at various Airbnb’s around the US in advance of the many colleges Loy and I will check out together in the coming months. Her heart is set on Barnard, but hearts, as we well know, are made to break.
  • sifted through boxes of recipes, pulling out the non-meat ones since the high school senior has just informed us she is a vegetarian.
  • dwelled far too much in past memories and fantasized far too much about what I want my future to look like.
  • filled out the volunteer application for the local food shelf but didn’t yet turn it in.
  • wrote a polite thank-you note to a book blogger who reviewed RASH in a most favorable fashion.
  • considered re-organizing my office.
  • meditated daily with soothing meditation teachers.
  • made a list of writing residencies I was absolutely going to apply to, then missed half the deadlines.
  • saw Tony Bennett perform at the Flynn and waxed nostalgic about my dead father who was a huge fan. I am constantly amazed by music’s profound ability to unmoor me.  As the late Oliver Sacks wrote in his book Musicophilia: “Familiar music acts as a sort of Proustian mnemonic, eliciting emotions and associations that had long been forgotten, giving the patient access once again to moods and memories, thoughts and worlds that had seemingly been completely lost.” Interestingly: my mother has lost so many of her memories due to dementia, yet, when old-time crooners swing by her facility to entertain the residents, she sings along to every song, remembering all the lyrics.  Apparently, this is because
Musical memory is considered to be partly independent from other memory systems. In Alzheimer’s disease and different types of dementia, musical memory is surprisingly robust…
  • fell out of love with Facebook while spending hours scrolling through Instagram, alternately experiencing boredom, awe, and FOMO.
  • connected with an old housemate from when I lived on Balboa Island and attended UC Irvine. Debbie found me on FB, and after I told her I based a character in my second novel on her, I noticed my Amazon sale numbers shot up precipitously.
  • binge-watched Crashing (the British version), Fleabag, and The Handmaid’s Tale. Victor and I are presently ensconced in season 2 of Billions. I can watch Paul Giamatti tie his shoes and still be riveted. If you haven’t yet, you must see his series, John Adams. Both he and it are phenomenal.
  • starting reading Kristin Neff’s Self-Compassion so that I may learn how to give myself more of that.
  • wrote this blog post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

War is Heck

It didn’t take a whole lot of arm-twisting to convince my husband Victor that I needed to go to  England and France if I wanted Mary’s Crossing, the WWII romance novel I was writing, to be as true-to-life as possible. I’d already spent the last year reading dozens of books, interviewing veterans, watching countless WWII movies, perusing innumerable websites, and listening to hundreds of interviews recorded by the National WWII Museum.

Certainly, secondary research is all well and good, but I had yet to fully capture the emotional and physical journeys of my two main characters: Eugene Walsh, a naval officer from a small town in northern California who lands on Utah Beach on D-Day; and Claudette Delors, a French woman trying to return to her village in occupied France. For that to happen, I felt I needed to see what they saw. I wanted to walk beside them.

Which meant, of course, that Victor and our three-year-old daughter, Loy, were going to walk beside them as well.

***

I’d developed the book’s rudimentary historical plot in 1998, when during a trip to France with Victor, we chanced upon the village of Oradour-sur-Glane where, on June 10, 1944, every man, woman, and child, was rounded up by Waffen-SS troops and executed. The men were shot to death; the women and children herded inside the village church and burned alive.

When he saw the devastation, President de Gaulle ordered that a wall be erected around the town so future generations would never forget. The “Village des Martyrs,” as it is known today, looks almost exactly as it did in 1944. We spent hours there, silently strolling the haunted ruins through a light drizzle. By the time we got back to the car, I knew in my bones I’d write about it someday.

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***

The modern day segment of the plotline floated into my mind’s harbor in 2003 (by then I’d had two novels published). While out on a walk, Victor casually mentioned an article he’d read about the Queen Mary 2which was to be the fastest ocean liner ever to be built.

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Its maiden voyage was planned for 2004 and it would be large enough to accommodate 2620 people.

“So, basically, everyone who lives here could fit on that ship,” I’d said, referring to our hometown of Nevada City, California. “How weird would it be for a whole town to sail together across the Atlantic Ocean?”

A weird idea, indeed, and more than a little provocative. A few weeks later, I finished an outline for my next novel’s plot: The small gold mining town of Lost Hill, California, is in turmoil because the Mionee Indian tribe has applied to build a casino on its outskirts (I based this on the real-life battle consuming the Gold Rush town of Plymouth, CA). Eugene Walsh is Lost Hill’s curmudgeon, embittered by the tragic events of WWII. He is also the town’s richest man. His only friend is Henry Weymouth, an unassuming house inspector who plays chess with Eugene most every evening. When Eugene dies, it is up to Henry to see that Eugene’s wishes, spelled out in his will, are carried out: Eugene offers to pay the Mionee to take their casino elsewhere. He also bequeaths every Lost Hill adult $10,000, if everyone in town agrees to accompany his ashes to France on the RMS Queen Mary 2. He wants his remains to be spread on the grave of a woman he met on the original RMS Queen Mary in 1944, back when he was on his way to war, and she was on her way home. After a lot of contentious debate, the entire town agrees to the proposition and travels aboard the QM2. Unresolved tensions between main characters flare throughout the crossing. Henry and Julia (Eugene’s estranged granddaughter) fall in love. Finally, they all reach Oradour-sur-Glane where lessons are learned and a shocking truth about Claudette is discovered.

***

By the beginning of 2005 I’d written a first draft and scoured every bit of historical research I could lay my hands on. My office was crammed full with books. Maps lined my walls. But so many details were still hazy. First off, I needed to see both ships. Flying down to Long Beach, where the original Queen Mary—now a hotel—was berthed was easy enough. I paid the admission price and walked around the decks, getting a feel for what Eugene might have experienced while traveling to England as a twenty-three-year-old naval ensign. I got a better sense of what the QM looked like when she was fitted out to be a troopship.

troops on queen mary 16x9

During the peak of the buildup to D-Day, as many as 16,000 troops were crowded onto a ship designed to hold just over 1,900 passengers. A glamorous and comfortable crossing it was not.

Most importantly, I saw the isolation ward where Eugene first meets Claudette.

isolation ward

But…how to describe the QM2? And what of the villages in England and the battlefields in France where Eugene spent months? It would have been remiss to set huge portions of the plot in places I knew only from photographs. Or, well, that was the logic I presented to Victor. “Loy is three. She’s so easy. We can travel cheap and stay with friends,” I’d offered. I also reminded him that his parents would be in Alsace for the summer. He said he’d “look into it,” and went back to reading to Loy.

The QM2’s incentives for first-time passengers turned out to be generous enough for us to afford a second-class (Princess Grill) stateroom. We contacted friends of friends who lived within driving distances of the many museums and sites I planned to visit. The grandparents even offered up some funds as incentive to detour northward for a visit.

In late May we boarded the QM2 and began our six-day transatlantic crossing. I spent those six days noting the myriad details I would use for the voyage of Lost Hill’s inhabitants. I charmed an invitation into the first-class (Queen’s Grill) area of the ship where butlers hung clothes and accompanying dogs had their own playground. During the day we three sipped strong tea in the ballroom whilst being serenaded by a string quartet. loylisaqm2At night, before fetching Loy from the daycare run by British nannies, we drank martinis in the Commodore Club overlooking the sleek bow. We listened to lectures, stared up in amazement in the planetarium, splashed one another in the pools, jogged the running track, and stretched out on comfy deck chairs in the breezy sunshine. By the time we docked in Southampton I knew, amongst other particulars, exactly what my characters ate for breakfast and what pieces of art they passed on their way to the dining room.

***

We rented a car and drove down to South Devon where I scouted out where Eugene lived and trained for the invasion. I’d chosen Salcombe, one of the three departure points for the Utah Beach landing force. We put Loy in her stroller and roamed the charming seaside village so I could affix to my mind what Eugene saw as he stepped out of his Quonset hut each morning before heading to the harbor for military exercises.

In the village of Frogmore I found the 19th century inn where he and Claudette met for a second time. I sat in the room where they made love and vowed to be together after the war ended. We picnicked in the grassy field where Eugene begged Claudette not to go to France.

***

And then, like my characters, we were off to France. To honor the thousands of men who lost their lives on D-Day, we crossed the English Channel on June 6, exactly sixty-one years after Eugene did.

lisamuseumI filled notebook after notebook as we wandered battlefields, war museums, beaches, and cemeteries. Since Eugene commanded an LCVP, a small landing craft, there was nothing I didn’t know about LCVPs—on paper. 
amphibious-military-vehicles-wwi-to-presentIn Saint-Marie-du-Mont I got to climb onto a real one. I stood where Eugene would have stood as he and his men crossed the choppy waters.

If we knew a particular exhibition displayed gruesome or violent imagery, Victor would take Loy to a nearby playground or bistro while I, alone, immersed myself in the many displays of Nazi brutality. Hours later, stinking of death, I’d come out of the darkness, blinking against the bright sun, and go meet up with my husband and child. I’d desperately want to tell Victor about my ghastly discoveries, but inevitably he’d shush me. “No, Lisa. Not in front of Loy.” Like a puppy being house-trained I learned to hold in the horrors.

I returned to Oradour-sur-Glane, and when I saw the remains of the slaughter through Eugene’s eyes, as if for the first time, I was again shaken to my core. Since our last visit an underground memorial had been built to exhibit photographs, Oradour-victims-2_articleimage (1)films, and recordings about the tragedy. Personal effects found among the carnage were presented in clean climate-controlled glass cases. A watch, frozen at 3:15. A charred schoolbook. A hairbrush which may have belonged to Claudette.

 

After the obligatory trip to Alsace to see the grandparents we set off for London, where I’d reserved time in the Imperial War Museum’s extensive library. On July 7, the night before our planned departure from France, suicide bombers carried out a series of attacks throughout the city, killing 52 people and injuring over 700.

6/6/44
7/7/05

The Chunnel ceased running, so we were forced to return our car and ferry back over. We disembarked in Dover on July 8, stepping onto a vastly different landscape than we’d left a month earlier. There were police everywhere. Travel was restricted. A sense of doom and danger permeated the air. Here, I’d been consumed by a war long over, and was now suddenly slapped into a present-day conflict.

We hunkered down at a friend’s house in East Sheen. Instead of traveling into London together, Victor and Loy stayed behind. Every morning, as I boarded a train, I wondered if the terrorists were finished terrorizing or if I’d become another innocent victim who happened to choose the wrong train car. The fear overwhelmed me. Would I see my family again, I asked myself as I glanced furtively at the other passengers. I looked into their faces. Scanned their clothing for signs of bombs. Only when I reached my stop and exited the train was I able to breathe again.

Sure, I could have eschewed the paranoia by staying in the suburbs, but knowing the Imperial War Museum housed tens of thousands of primary sources from WWII, I was determined to finish my research. (Recall please, that in 2005 the internet was a far less powerful resource.) For the next week I scoured innumerous medical records from Queen Victoria Hospital (Claudette was assigned there). I flipped through thousands of photographs of naval training exercises. climbingnetsI held in my hand actual letters and diaries from soldiers, sailors, and civilians. There, in the small silent room I read their stories and let myself get transported back in time so that I could almost grasp their feelings: The gung-ho young men excited to be traveling abroad, as if going off to war were an innocuous adventure. The mothers and sisters, wives and girlfriends who cloaked their apprehension with words of pride.

***

Back in California I sequestered myself in my writing cottage. Now that I had all this data, my characters would finally get to see what I’d seen. Hear what I’d heard. I would color every scene with my memories and bring history alive. I would make Eugene suffer so much, he’d return to Lost Hill a broken man.

What I hadn’t planned on was returning to Nevada City a broken woman. Two weeks after I started rewriting Mary’s Crossing, I fell into a deep depression.

What had I been thinking, trying to recreate war? What had possessed me to believe it’d be easy to transfer the grisly scenes onto a page? I was beholden to the dead and constantly felt the pressure to get it exactly right. I began questioning my ability to tell the story. I hated everything and everyone.

I had become Eugene Walsh, the town curmudgeon.

One afternoon after I’d walked into the house and slammed the door because I felt so grumpy, Victor said, “You’ve become a real jerk, you know.” Before I could get defensive, he added, “Maybe you should stop writing that book. It’s just pissing you off.”

He was right. Maybe I should. “I’m going for a walk,” I announced.

“Mommy. I made this for you. Drink it before you go,” Loy said, handing me a plastic martini glass filled with green Mardi Gras beads. I drank it, making gulping noises as the beads dribbled all over my face and down onto the floor.

I handed the empty glass back to her so she could wash it in her fake sink. “Yum. That was tasty. Thank you.”

“Did it make you feel better, Mommy?”

“Yeah, did it?” Victor asked.

I left without answering and flew down the hill, jumped over the fence, clomping through the neighbor’s yard and over to the gravel road until I hit the trail that lined the wide creek flowing below our property. I cut right at the grove of buckeyes and carefully picked my way across the white boulders to a small eddy hurried-rushing-waters-of-a-stream_800where we often brought hot chocolate and a picnic lunch. Where I usually panicked as Loy walked along the slippery rocks, knowing that if she fell into the fast creek she’d be washed away in the blink of an eye.

I crept up to the pool and dangled my right hand in the icy water until my fingers started to sting. I welcomed the pain.

***

My doctor prescribed Lexapro. In a matter of weeks my anxiety was gone and my anger subdued. I finished writing Mary’s Crossing, sent it off to my agent, and then promptly titrated off the drug. I liked being on an even keel, emotionally speaking, but I’d become less sharp; my cognition was less nimble. I wanted my full brain back again.

In the end, my agent never did sell the novel. Editors loved “the conceit of the story,” and many adored Eugene and Claudette, although the majority of readers thought it was overwritten. There were too many main characters, and they found the present-day plotline less compelling than the historical section.

Instead of rewriting it, I moved to Bali where I began writing a different novel altogether: one that had nothing to do with war or death.

“Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.” 
                             ― Edmund Burke

I figure someday I’ll return to Eugene and Claudette’s fateful tale, but in the next version, I’ll cull the casino story and focus only on the love story. After all my family and I experienced during those months abroad—from landscapes swathed in graves of dead soldiers to the London bombing—I’ve come to accept that there will never be an end to war in my lifetime or in my daughter’s lifetime. We, as individuals, can only do so much to stop hatred and its violent consequences. But we must try to attain peace, if not for the sake of our children, for the sake of those who lost their lives in wars past and wars present.

I know that my writing a romance novel that takes place during a war will not change the course of history. Eugene and Claudette are fictional characters sprung from my imagination, but through them, because of them, I have to believe that love will someday prevail.

 

 

 

 

Author Interview with Gilion

RCR header 2

 

In case you missed it on FB and IG, I was recently interviewed by the extraordinarily charming and generous book blogger, Gilion Dumas; aka Rose City Reader. For anyone itching to find out the whys and hows of this tropical tale of mine, have at it: 

How did you come to write your recent memoir Rash about moving your family from California to Bali?

Truly, this book was a long time in coming. A week after we returned to the States from Bali, I met my agent for lunch in New York City. I asked him to advise me how to make the novel I’d been working on better. He suggested I put it aside and instead write “the Bali book.” He’d read my email dispatches, he said, and thought my experiences would make for a fantastic, relatable book. Since I’d always been a fiction writer, I fought him on it. I had no interest in writing a memoir. I mean, who wants to talk about themselves for 300 pages? (Given the abundance of memoirs out there, I suppose lots of people do—although I, for one, did not wish to.)

I never forgot his entreaty, though; even as I worked on my next novel, his words continued to shadow me. Two years after that lunch date, I gathered up all my emails, papers, photographs and mementos from our time in Bali, checked into an empty B&B in northern Vermont, and spent three weeks writing the first draft. (When a snowstorm sealed me in, I came close to channeling Jack Nicholson in “The Shining.”) Four more drafts and a new agent later, Rash found a publisher who fell in love with it.

You don’t sugarcoat the experiences you had while living abroad. Did you have any qualms about sharing so much?

That is a definitive YES! Qualms, reservations, and queasiness to boot. Over-sharing is not in my nature, but honesty is. I knew if I wanted this book to be good, I would need to be completely forthcoming and authentic. I remember nervously pacing the house while my husband read the first draft. Given that Victor is a preternaturally private person I was uber worried he’d be angry at me for broadcasting our intimacies. After he pointed out a few factual inaccuracies, his response was something along the lines of, “You left out a lot and it was much worse than you depicted. Go write it again.”

I almost hate to ask, but can you give us a hint about what the title means without ruining the story?

That’s a great question. It’s funny, but my agent wanted to title it Bitch Mom in Bali: Confessions of a Desperate Woman in Paradise. Gosh, but I hated that. I was bitchy, but certainly not a bitch. I chose “Rash” because I love a double entendre. It was a rash decision to pack up and move to the other side of the planet mere weeks after I discovered Green School’s existence. The other use of rash—the literal usage—speaks to my constant fears about our daughter’s safety. Mosquito-borne dengue fever is rampant in Southeast Asia. And, for children, it is often lethal. One of the first signs of infections is a flat red rash. Given that our bamboo hut was completely open-aired, it was impossible to avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes, no matter how much bug spray I slathered on Loy. I was forever checking the poor kid for rashes.

For all you guys went through, your book is quite funny. How did your sense of humor affect your time in Bali or your book writing?

It’s an odd thing to write memoir. Some of the more surreal or scary experiences I encountered—like the monkey attack or the ant invasion—weren’t funny while they were happening, yet when I wrote about them, I was able to laugh at myself. I’ve often described the book to people as “I Love Lucy Goes to Bali” because I really am a bit of a nutcase. I always mean well, but my tendency to act before thinking got me into some pretty crazy situations.

Are there other expatriate memoirs that you love or inspired you to write your own?

No other book inspired me more or gave me the courage to write my own story than The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific by J. Maarten Troost. Here is the Amazon blurb:

… Troost discovers that Tarawa is not the island paradise he dreamed of. Falling into one amusing misadventure after another, Troost struggles through relentless, stifling heat, a variety of deadly bacteria, polluted seas, toxic fish—all in a country where the only music to be heard for miles around is “La Macarena.”

If you were to substitute “Bali” for “Tarawa,” “mosquitos” for “bacteria,” “rogue monkeys” for “toxic fish,” and “gamelan” for “La Macarena,” you’d essentially be describing my book. I read Troost’s book years before I knew Bali existed and I loved it. When I read it again—post-Bali—I knew I had to share my story too.

Naturally, I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, especially since lots of people and reviewers have referred to Rash as the anti-Eat, Pray, Love. I really enjoyed it, even though our experiences in Bali were polar opposites.

Who are your three (or four or five) favorite authors? Is your own writing influenced by the authors you read?

Ack! I can’t possibly answer this. I never play favorites. Okay, here are three dead and four living authors I greatly admire.

  • Dead: Nora Ephron, Ray Bradbury, Evelyn Waugh
  • Living: Ian McKewan, Jumpha Lahiri, Julian Barnes, Stephen King

I respect the heck out of these writers. They excel at their craft and know how to tell a good story. All good writing inspires me to be a better writer, whether it be a book, an essay in a magazine, or a blog post.

What kind of books do you like to read? What are you reading now? 

The word eclectic could never suffice to describe the ever-growing pile on my night table. Honestly, no genre takes precedence. I’m usually reading two books (one non-fiction and one novel) at a time and, because I travel a lot, I always have an audiobook downloaded.

Presently, my NF read is A Path with Heart by Jack Kornfield. As I am writing my first young adult novel, I’m reading my way through my teenage daughter’s bookshelves. I just started The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. And—because I cannot neglect my adult proclivities—The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. I recently finished listening to the eighteen-hour-long audio version of the brilliant A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I’m flying a lot in the coming weeks, and just downloaded The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer to help me through the long layovers in Atlanta.

You have a terrific website and are also active on twitter and Instagram. From an author’s perspective, how important is social media to promote your book? 

My website is the clearinghouse for all things Lisa Kusel, not just promoting my book. It has links to all my published work, book reviews, and links to my other social media accounts. It’s also the place for me to occasionally blog about personal stuff—from recipes I’ve cooked to essays I choose not to submit to magazines.

What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given as an author?

  • Kill your darlings (Faulkner).
  • Something most always be at stake (literary agent Brian DeFiore).
  • Read. Read. Then read some more (6th grade writing teacher).
  • Just because you’ve thoroughly researched your subject matter doesn’t mean you need to share all of it with your readers (Stephen King).

What is the best thing about being a writer?

Without a doubt, it’s the friends I’ve made around the world. Something magical happens when you publish a book that speaks to personal struggles, no matter what the context. Strangers by the dozens have reached out to me since the book was published. They tell me they loved it. They related to it on so many levels (okay, so yeah, my agent was correct). From those initial emails or FB posts or Instagram messages, the conversations have continued—deeply personal exchanges that mean the world to me.

I am beyond grateful to be a part of the larger community of writers. I am the sort of author who writes to every single reviewer to thank them for reading my book—even if they didn’t like it. I write to bloggers and bookstagrammers; fellow authors and aspiring authors. I believe everyone has a story to tell and, if I can be of any help, I will.

What’s next? Are you working on your next book?

At the moment I’m writing a long essay about what it was like to travel through France and England with a small child while researching a WWII novel. (I’ll post that on my website soon). Two weeks ago I finished a complete rewrite of a novel I wrote a few years ago. It’s a genre-bending suspense story. While I wait to hear back from publishers, I’ll return to the young adult book I workshopped at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. It received outstanding feedback from an editor at Knopf, and I’m excited to dive back into it.